House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) warned Thursday that members of his Democratic Caucus will not automatically back a debt ceiling deal cut between President Biden and Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).
Asked if GOP leaders have miscalculated in assuming that House Democrats will help Republicans pass a Biden-backed bill through the lower chamber, Jeffries didn’t hesitate.
“Yes,” he told reporters.
“It’s a miscalculation to assume that simply any agreement that House Republicans are able to reach will, by definition, trigger a sufficient number of Democratic votes — if that agreement undermines our values.”
It’s highly unlikely that the White House and Democratic leaders in Congress would be in disagreement over a final debt limit agreement, since Jeffries — while not directly involved in the talks — has been updated regularly on the developments.
Still, Jeffries’s remarks send a clear signal that House Democrats should not be considered a rubber stamp for a compromise bill if they deem it to violate core party principles, particularly their efforts to protect vulnerable populations from huge cuts to social benefit programs.
“We’re not going to take a deal that hurts working people,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), head of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said Wednesday.
The threat to withhold Democratic support has real teeth, because McCarthy, after rallying Republicans behind a debt ceiling package last month, is expected to lose scores of conservative votes on a final deal with Biden, which will necessarily be more moderate than the partisan GOP bill.
“I’m concerned about anything that is not consistent with the ‘Limit, Save, Grow’ [Act],” Rep. Bob Good (R-Va.), a member of the far-right Freedom Caucus, said Thursday, referring to the House-passed bill.
That means the minority House Democrats will have to step in to fill the void, get the package over the 218-vote threshold and send it on to the Senate, where a similar bipartisan coalition will also be needed to approve the legislation.
While the sides appear to be inching closer to a deal, a number of outstanding issues remain, including disagreements surrounding work requirements for benefit programs, permitting reforms to expedite energy projects, and levels of federal spending for 2024 and beyond.
Moderate Democrats appear willing to endorse a legislative package that includes some of the deficit-reduction proposals being demanded by Republicans.
“This is going to be a decision of lessers of evils,” said Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.), a member of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus. “We’re not going to agree to just anything, but we have to weigh what’s worse. And default is unimaginably worse than just about anything.”
Liberals, however, are warning that they can’t back any final agreement with provisions that would hurt their constituents, including cuts in social programs and tougher work requirements for food stamps and other low-income benefits.
“Republicans have asked to do what? Cut benefits for working people, veterans, seniors, children, small businesses and to affect our economy. How is that a solution?” said Rep. Steven Horsford (D-Nev.), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Still, Horsford gave Biden high marks for holding the line in the talks, and predicted the president would negotiate a final deal that most Democrats could get behind.
“We don’t have to swallow anything when the president holds firm in the negotiation,” he said.
Heading into the recess, House Democrats huddled in the basement of the Capitol to learn the latest developments surrounding the negotiations and synchronize their message at home. That message centers around a warning to voters that the Republicans’ proposed spending cuts would slash programs that benefit them.
“We want to make sure when [Republicans] go home they have to answer for the tens of thousands of young people who will be kicked off of Pell grants. A million seniors off of Meals on Wheels. … The list goes on and on,” said former Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
“That’s what the American people need to hear about. And that’s what members are prepared to go home to do.”
It’s unclear when the House might be called back to Washington. But Democratic leaders informed the caucus that it could happen as soon as Sunday, according to Jayapal.
Updated at 3:53 p.m.